As Lenihan lashes the ship’s wheel, the new government must learn to govern…

Tomorrow is budget day in Dublin. The two independent TDs the government needs to force it through the Dail, Jackie Healy Rae and Michael Lowry are to decide today whether they support the government. Currently the government appears to be lavishing them with the kind of attention Government backbenchers can only dream of…

Fianna Fail TD Ned O’Keeffe said it makes party backbenchers “look like doormats”.”I can’t understand how two people are going to decide the future of the country and the budget,” he said.

“The Minister for Finance is treating those Fianna Fail backbenchers like doormats. It’s a joke. The Fianna Fail backbenchers are a skit. Brian Lenihan will go down in history as Ireland’s worst Minister for Finance. No doubt in my mind.”

According to government sources, the election when it comes, will take place before the St Patrick’s Day weekend in March when the government goes on its annual walkabout tour of the world’s biggest economies. As Fionnan Sheahan noted a fortnight ago, the government has lashed the ship’s wheel on a course of its own, rather than the opposition’s, choosing:

It is a severe injustice that the bulk of the ministers who led the country into the economic crisis and mismanaged it through the same crisis are now setting out the path to recovery.

‘The National Recovery Plan 2011-2014’ lacks a degree of credibility, as it won’t be implemented by those who put it together. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan clearly indicated he regards the plan as a general election manifesto.

Elaine Byrne produces an unnerving precedent from Argentina in an excellent precis of the situation Ireland finds itself in:

Ricardo Hipólito López Murphy was briefly minister of economy during the worst economic crisis in Argentina’s history.

Only five years earlier, the country had been widely hailed as a booming economic miracle.

He spent just 17 days in office in 2001. His attempts to administer unpalatable budgetary measures imposed by the IMF were deeply resented by a public already struggling with major economic hardships.

In that one year alone, five different finance ministers tried their luck at introducing vital economic reforms.

The failure to navigate between an angry public and the fiscal constraints of IMF conditionality cut short a dozen careers in the Argentina finance ministry in the last decade.

Is this the future that awaits a potential Fine Gael-Labour coalition?

Well, not necessarily. But she argues it will entail, firstly, a melding of two political cultures into a competent government. Opportunism is the territory of campaigning. Government requires something altogether more settled and calm:

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in Britain is an exercise in managing different coalition expectations within the limitations of fiscal restraint. The comprehensive spending review process is a means of knitting coalitions tightly together in the face of extraordinary challenges.

This mechanism fixes firm spending budgets for each government department over several years. It is then up to departments to decide how best to manage and distribute this spending within their areas of responsibility. It promotes a whole of government policy coherence and instils the principle of collective responsibility from the inauguration of a new administration.

If Ireland is to avoid gathering an unnecessary collection of finance ministers in short succession, as was the case of Argentina, it is imperative that the next coalition is a decision-making body and not a debating society.

Previous coalitions have been distinguished by ministers on solo runs and those who are against expenditure cuts in general while being in favour of nothing in particular.

An agreed process by which painful decisions have to be made will determine the stability of Irish politics for the next decade.

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